What does it take for those in power to listen, to learn and to incorporate that learning into substantive change? One answer, of course, is that they can’t and they won’t. It is naïve to imagine that those with power want to share or distribute any of the power that lies within their control. Again and again, I witness students, staff and faculty patronized or threatened by those who hold more power. Sometimes those in power know exactly what they are doing. Sometimes, all too often, another sickening scenario plays out.
The authorities in the room consider themselves well intentioned. For example, a few weeks ago in the context of a discussion about racial profiling by Hamilton Police and Campus Safety, students of color shared experience after experience in which they were treated differently than White students. The response from the person in power unequivocally remained, “that’s your perception.” And there he was, using his perception in an attempt to invalidate your experiences. I choose my words carefully: what a person in power cannot do is invalidate another person’s experience as much as he or she may try to overwrite it with unexamined bias.
More recently, a person who holds authority thanks to his accomplishments and years since graduation, and yet has no direct knowledge and certainly no experience of what it is like to be a student of color at Colgate in 2016, was so enmeshed in his own certainty about “the coddling of the university student’s mind” that he could not make room to listen to those very students of color with their daily experiences here on Colgate’s campus.
In my 30 years at Colgate, my darkest days are those when faculty and administration and alums, when the so-called “grown-ups,” resist the kind of learning we must continually undertake, or to quote someone I admire greatly, “when we fail to undertake the ongoing self-work we are called into.” In a place centered on learning, I often despair at how difficult it can be for those with authority to continue learning, especially when such authority carries with it the weight of unexamined “norms.” I do not want to end this letter in a place of despair. It does no good.
To paraphrase Barbara Smith, one of the founders of the Combahee River Collective and lifelong worker for social justice, despair does nothing to destabilize the status quo. For those of you in my classes, for those of you I have met at events or during the sit-in or for those of you who I have met through conversations that achingly became possible through the trauma this place embodies and enacts for all too many, with you who, I employ strategies for the meantime… or as emerita Women’s Studies, Philosophy and Religion professor Marilyn Thie would say, for the mean time in which we live.